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date: 10 December 2018


Declamation (Lat. declamatio, Gk. meletē) was over a very long period the main means employed by teachers of rhetoric to train their pupils for public speaking. It was invented by the Greeks, who brought it to Rome and the Roman world generally. Its developed forms were known in Latin as the controversia, a speech in character on one side of a fictional law case, and the suasoria, a deliberative speech advising a course of action in a historical, pseudo-historical, or mythological situation; the first trained for the courts, the second for the political assembly or committee room.

The sophists of the 5th cent. bce regarded it as their principal task to teach rhetoric. Surviving display speeches from this period, apparently intended as models for students, are clear forerunners of the controversia. Antiphon (1)'s Tetralogies, arranged in speeches for and against, exemplify techniques of argument. In particular, Gorgias (1)'s Palamedes displays a clear articulation that marks off parts of the speech and stages in the argument, and is clearly intended to train the student in systematic exposition. For Philostratus (VS481), sketching the so-called Second Sophistic, it was the orator Aeschines who, after his exile to Rhodes, introduced the use of stock characters, poor man and rich man, hero and tyrant. We are poorly informed about the Hellenistic period, but it must have been then that the characteristic form of the controversia evolved. The master would lay down a law, or laws, often imaginary, to govern the case, together with a theme detailing the supposed facts and stating the point at issue (cf. e.g. Sen.Controv. 1. 5: ‘A girl who has been raped may choose either marriage to her ravisher without a dowry or his death. On a single night a man raped two girls. One demands his death, the other marriage’). The case would be fictional, and names would be given only if it concerned historical circumstances. The speaker, whether pupil or rhetor, would take one side or the other, sometimes playing the part of an advocate, usually that of a character in the case. Thus training was given in all branches of rhetoric. Attention was paid to the articulation of the speech and to the forging of a persuasive argument; style would be inculcated by precept and example; memory was trained too, for speeches were not read out, and delivery (experience of an audience was given by the occasional introduction of parents and friends). Particularly important was the ‘invention’ (finding) of arguments. The stasis system, which owed much to Hermagoras of Temnos (c.150 bce), enabled a speaker to establish the type of the case (e.g. ‘conjecture’, did X do Y?) and draw on a check-list of topics appropriate to that type (e.g. in the case of conjecture, motive and opportunity) with their associated arguments. The rhetor would teach the rhetorical system in abstract and exemplify it in his own model speeches, as we see in the Latin Minor Declamations, attributed to Quintilian (see Declamationes pseudo-Quintilianeae), and in the Greek collection of Sopater (2).

These practices are presupposed by the earliest Latin rhetorical handbooks, Cicero's De inventione and the anonymous Rhetorica ad Herennium, both based on Greek teaching. For some time we are largely dependent on Latin sources. The Elder Seneca (L. Annaeus Seneca (1)) is the most familiar, but he probably gives a distorted picture: he is most interested in epigram and the clever slanting of a case, not at all in the technicalities of the stasis system or the elaboration of a complex argument. Quintilian, though critical (Institutiones 2. 10) of the unreality of contemporary practice (as were Petronius Arbiter (Sat. 1–4) and Tacitus (Dial.35)), never questions the basis of declamation, and his book is a handbook for the declaimer as well as for the orator. The Minor Declamations seem to reflect his procedures. Later, the Major Declamations look more like display pieces for the special occasion. Ennodius testifies to the popularity of declamation in the 6th cent. ce, and the story can be taken down as late as the 17th cent.

Meanwhile the Greek evidence becomes important. The Greek declaimers excerpted in the elder Seneca seem often to employ the so-called Asianic rhetoric, overfond of emotional effect, wordplay, bombast, and rhythm. But a rather more austere impression is given by the preserved declamations of Polemon (4), Lucian, P. Aelius Aristides, Libanius, and the 6th-cent. Choricius; they are ‘Attic’ not only in the classicism of their language but also in the comparative moderation of their style, though declaimers eventually succumbed to the accentual rhythms that succeeded to the metrical clausulae of earlier declaimers. All of these spoke for display. But we are taken into the workshop of declamation by the important book of Sopater (late 4th cent. ce?), the Diairesis zētēmatōn or ‘Division of Problems’. The author gives advice on the treatment of no less than 82 fictional cases, ordered according to their stasis, on a system related to that evolved by Hermogenes (2) of Tarsus; there are model excerpts in direct speech.

See Seneca (bibliography); Asianism and Atticism; divisio; rhetoric, Greek and Latin.


Fundamental: S. E. Bonner, Roman Declamation (1949).Find this resource:

D. A. Russell, Greek Declamation (1983).Find this resource:

For Quintilian, M. Winterbottom, Hommages à Jean Cousin (1983), 225–235.Find this resource:

For Sopater, D. C. Innes and M. Winterbottom, Sopatros the Rhetor (1988).Find this resource:

And generally, B.-J. Schröder and J.-P. Schröder (eds.), Studium declamatorium (2003).Find this resource:

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